Drive for the GHSA State Title: Thomas County Central at Marist Preview

A resurgent Thomas County Central team enters their first semifinals in 16 years to face a test unlike any they have faced in the 2023 season, in a rough and tumble Marist team.

Thomas County Central has seen a resurgence under second year head coach Justin Rogers that has seen them return to the standard set by legendary head coach Ed Pilcher, making it to the quarterfinals or better in back-to-back years for the first time since 2007 and 2008.

Marist has been one of the most consistent programs in the state, over living legend Alan Chadwick’s almost four-decade tenure with the War Eagles, making the quarterfinals or better in 28 of his 39 seasons while winning three state titles. The two teams have faced each other eight times with the Yellow Jackets leading the series 7-1. The teams have faced off in the semifinals four other times with three of the winners going on to win the state championship. In 1996 and 1997, Thomas County Central won the 3A state title and Marist won the 2003 4A state title.

The Yellow Jackets have been dominant this season, scoring 42 points per game while only giving up 8.4, shutting out five of their 13 opponents. Their offense is led by sophomore quarterback Jaylen Johnson and running back Trey Brenton who create an offensive backfield that has proven to be nearly impossible to stop, helping to score 27 or more points in every game except their thrilling 19-16 quarterfinals win over No. 6 Rome. When asked about the motor of his offense Rogers had great things to say about his star running back.

“Troy Brenton is a dude; he is a hard-nosed, throwback runner,” said Rogers “He runs violently with great pad level, and he has good speed to be able to break away. He is truly a back that gets stronger as the game goes on.”

While the Yellow Jackets have star talent in the backfield, that doesn’t mean that they lack talent at the other skill positions. The receiving corps is led by senior tight end Malachi Thomas, who has offers from the likes of Kennesaw State and Georgia State, and sophomore wide receiver Tre’von Pringle, who will have division one offers before his high school career is over.

They have combined for over 900 yards and 11 touchdowns of the teams 17 receiving touchdowns, creating mismatches on the outside that have been hard to stop when combined with the dominant ground game. The depth and grit of these players showed what the Thomas County Central coaching staff knew all along.

“I don’t really think we learned anything going in,” said Rogers “We felt we had a group of guys that were willing to fight, to claw, and we felt really strong about our players and their character and the grit they had. The Rome game just exposed that.”

Thomas County Central’s defense has been just as, if not more dominant than the offense. Giving up over 20 ppg only once against No. 4 Lee County. The defensive side of the ball is where the Yellow Jackets talent really shows. In the secondary, they have two FBS prospects in senior Northern Illinois-commit Devin Ross and Junior Auburn-commit Kendarius Reddick, who have both helped them dominate opposing passing games, but will both have to transition to near complete run defense against the run heavy Marist offense. The defensive line is full of talent, with sophomore four-star defensive end Cameron Brooks and senior defensive end Walter Reddick. However, they will have to stick to their assignments against the eye catching triple option of the War Eagles.

Marist has been dominant during the three games of this playoff run, outscoring its opponents 127-56 en route to their first semifinals appearance since 2020, and their 23rd semifinals appearance overall. The War Eagles offense is an anomaly in high end 6A football today. The triple option has become a gimmick offense for many teams to make up for a lack of talent. However, coach Chadwick still does it the same way he always has, even with the high-end talent he has. The Marist offense has become known for its brutal efficiency and perfection, leading to short games and every one of its opponents’ mistakes being punished due to the lack of possessions. Adding to the War Eagles dominance is a massive offensive line led by Nicholas Woodward and Sam Markham, both of whom are 6-foot-4 or taller and over 280 pounds, leading the way for the many rushing threats in the backfield.

The Marist defense is as dominant as it has been almost every year in coach Chadwick’s 39 seasons. The defense has only given up 11.62 ppg and only 9.75 since its week one loss to Gainesville. The defense will have to face maybe its biggest challenge against the balanced offensive attack of the Yellow Jackets. The defense will have to quickly differentiate between run and pass to slow the rushing attack and put pressure on Jaylen Johnson like few teams have this year, forcing him to make quicker decisions and put the ball in tight windows while under pressure.

You can watch the game live at 7:30 p.m. this Friday on the Peachtree Sports Network, on the Atlanta News First app and on the National Federation High School Network.

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